The Flu and Disability: Know the Risks

Tis the flu season and doctors are warning people with disabilities to be extra cautious during this time. Current studies suggest, that because of the various muscular, respiratory, or other physical conditions children and adults living with disabilities may experience, their risks of influenza complications are increased. Some physical disabilities and conditions that affect the immune system can impair how well the body fights off infection; increasing the chances of developing more severe symptoms that require hospitalization or even lead to death.

“Flu is particularly dangerous for people who may have trouble with muscle function, lung function or difficulty coughing, swallowing, or clearing fluids from their airways,” said study coauthor and pediatrician Dr. Georgina Peacock. “These problems are sometimes experienced by children with neurologic disorders.”

Those living with cognitive disabilities are more likely to have difficulty processing and maintaining preventative measures, such as hand washing, symptom monitoring, cough and sneeze protection, and avoiding contact with people who are sick. Those living with disabilities aren’t in any more danger of contracting the illness than others but their chances of hospitalization and even death as the result of the flu are higher. Midway through this flu season (December-February), 20 children and an unknown, but rising number of adults have died from the flu. And at least 22 children and 84 adults with neurologic disorders have been hospitalized in what experts are calling the worst flu season since 2009.

Seventy-five percent of children with a neurologic condition who died from 2009 H1N1 influenza-related infection also had an additional condition that increased their chances for influenza complications, such as a pulmonary disorder, metabolic disorder, heart disease, or a chromosomal abnormality.

 “We’ve known for some time that certain neurologic conditions can put children at high risk for serious complications from influenza,” said Dr. Lyn Finelli, chief of the CDC’s surveillance and outbreak response team. “However, the high percentage of pediatric deaths associated with neurologic disorders that occurred during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was a somber reminder of the harm that flu can cause to children with neurologic and neurodevelopmental disorders.” 

The CDC recommends that getting an annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent flu, especially for those who are considered high-risk. It is also recommended that those in close contact with a person living with disabilities get vaccinated to keep from becoming ill and spreading the flu to those who are most vulnerable.


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